‘Rip Van Winkle’ deals with a fantastical event at its heart, but uses this to illustrate some broad truths about life.
The main theme with which the story deals is that of change, and how people react to it. When Rip awakes from his enchanted sleep, he finds the little village, which is the only world he has ever known, completely altered. There has been a political revolution and the whole pace of life has picked up in his absence; it is no longer a sleepy little place but active and bustling.
Rip’s reaction is, understandably, one of complete bewilderment at first. This deepens into fear and anxiety when he returns to his old, now empty home.
He called loudly for his wife and children – the lonely chambers rung for a moment with his voice, and then all again was silence.
Rip’s sense of abandonment and desolation at this point is a realistic depiction of how people might feel lost in the midst of change. It is true, though, that the story is generally lighthearted and does not really follow up the serious implications of this. Although the world has outgrown Rip, although he has aged almost beyond recognition, he slots back into the life of the village quite quickly and is even honoured as a relic of the time before revolution and independence.
Rip finds it all the easier to join back in as he has now been mercifully released from ‘petticoat government’ – his shrew of a wife died in his absence. Again, this situation is portrayed in essentially a humorous light, although we can say that it illustrates a further human truth about the nature of marriage and how marital discord can have a detrimental effect.